Myanmar still has a wealth of forests ― but it’s going fast

Myanmar still has a wealth of forests ― but it’s going fast

Decades of political isolation have made Myanmar the most forested country in mainland Southeast Asia, providing critical habitat for endangered species.

“Myanmar is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot,” says Peter Leimgruber of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, adding that it has “some of the best remaining, unbroken habitat for many endangered species, ranging from small birds such as the Gurney’s pitta to large, charismatic mammals such as tiger and elephant.”

In new research published in PLOS ONE, Leimgruber and colleagues used Landsat satellite images to map forest cover in Myanmar between 2002 and 2014. The team found that forest covers 63 percent of Myanmar. This means the country still has much of its original forest, unlike Thailand and India, which are down to forest covers of 31 and 24 percent, respectively.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Myanmar is losing its forests fast.

Altogether, forest covers more than 42 million hectares of Myanmar and two-fifths of this is intact. But unbroken forest declined 11 percent during the study period ― a loss of more than 2 million hectares in about a decade.

Much of the intact forest is unprotected and subject to increasing pressures from the country’s rapid political and economic changes. Areas that were inaccessible due to armed conflicts between the government and ethnic groups, for example, are starting to open up for timber production and commercial plantations.

What can be done? Leimgruber recommends adding large, intact forests to Myanmar’s network of protected areas as well as establishing new plantations in degraded rather than intact forests.

Another consideration is that Myanmar’s forests are diverse, ranging from mangroves to mixed deciduous to lowland evergreen. “Each forest type feels and looks different, each is fascinating,” Leimgruber says. “Dry dipterocarp forests are very open with an abundance of grasses and a range of broad-leafed tree species; lowland rainforests have huge, tall trees and dense understories.”

However, to his knowledge there are no good maps of the status and distribution of the various kinds of forests. His team is now working on this with partners in Myanmar.

“Different forest types experience different threats and pressures, for example, shrimp farming and charcoal production for mangrove forests versus plantation expansion for evergreen lowland forest,” Leimgruber says. “I believe this will be very important in the future.”

Research Article: Bhagwat T, Hess A, Horning N, Khaing T, Thein ZM, Aung KM, et al. (2017) Losing a jewel—Rapid declines in Myanmar’s intact forests from 2002-2014. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176364. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176364

Image Credit: Grant Connette

Author

Robin is a freelance science writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, covering water, energy and the environment in the western US, and all things biology from biomechanics to behavior.

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